God is Good.
Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?
The answer is neither. Good is the nature of God. There is no independent standard of good apart from God. In this fallen world, the only morally good actions are those which reflect the nature of God. Just as God is only knowable through revelation, so goodness is only knowable through revelation. God alone is good.
That answer to this ancient question (Euthyphro’s Dilemma: “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?”) would have been well known to any first-year seminarian of the past centuries, but it is forgotten by many of today’s clergy and bishops and no longer taught to the laity. Thus, we are experiencing the catastrophic consequences for the care of souls and the preservation of the church. Let us take a stroll through the Garden and see.
So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
It was good for food: an empirically provable point. God never said that it wasn’t.
It was a delight to the eyes: a more subjective observation but one that we are led to believe was held by at least half of the world’s known population at the time, and again God never said that it wasn’t.
It was to be desired to make one wise: Duh! It was called the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
So, we have an apparently morally neutral act with demonstrable benefits which are generally accepted as the smart thing to do by any independent standard. Eating the fruit is desirable, beneficial, and rational
It is now time to re-imagine what God would have said with this new information in hand. Perhaps, the prohibition was meant for an earlier time when Adam and Eve’s understandingof how the world operates was less sophisticated.
“She took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” With Adam’s participation we have unanimous consent affirming the decision to eat the fruit. Adam and Eve can properly persuade themselves that the plain word of God does not properly represent the true character of God. They can accept the serpent’s assurance, “Ye shall not surely die,” because a rational and loving God would never require such a thing.
The result of this carefully thought out and well supported consensus is catastrophic. It is also foreseeable, but only by trusting in the revelation of good. If God had not said, “Don’t do this” we would have no way of ascertaining it’s danger on our own. The only way we could forsee the tragic consequences of eating the fruit is by trusting God’s self-revelation. Eating the fruit is not wrong because it is unpleasant or unwise or unhealthy. It is wrong because it is immoral.
Embedded in the mysterious foundation of the world is the supernatural precept that moral actions manifest themselves in the temporal world. Moral good promotes shalom in the created order. Immorality will turn the Garden into a dessert. Our God given common sense is a help in sorting out good and evil, but it is a limited help. We come to places where common sense fails us. We must depend on the self revelation of God’s good character. At the gate to the Kingdom of God stands Jesus saying, I am the way. Reason says, follow him.
Whatever purpose the fruit had in the Garden it was not intended for us. From Genesis 1:4 onward the declaration of what is good is the sole province of God, and can only be known by revelation. Only as God is revealed to us can good be known by us.
Many of us who live at the apex of human knowledge have come to believe that we can know all good. Many believe that through reasoned study of the natural world and objective analysis of human behavior we can avoid the errors of the unenlightened peoples that preceded us and authoritatively declare what is good. We then take this paradigm of good and use it to evaluate all of those primitive beliefs that came before us… the prophets, the Scriptures, even God himself.
We feel comfortable with the idea that the plain word of God does not properly represent the true character of God. We produce the research demonstrating the benefits available to us from an action. We point out that the action is pleasing and desirable for at lesdt a substantial portion of the population, and pplling shows that there is consensus that the action is the smart thing to do. With this light, we can discern the defects of the prophets, the errors of the Apostles, there are even those with the singular ability to psychoanalyze God and discover the personality flaws in the Divine. With our authoritative good we can judge the Scripture and God, but neither of these are ever allowed to judge our determination of good. This is the path which led us out of Eden.
However, “(There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.” There is a path that leads us in goodness which is the character of God. Our Lord has not left us wanting for direction. Do you “love the God who made thee and thy neighbor as thyself,” then first, devote yourself to the plain word of Scripture before venturing into spiritualizing and re-imagining the texts, because “where the Lord’s nature is spoken of, there is he present.” “Thou shalt not forsake the commandments of the Lord, but thou shalt keep what thou didst receive, ‘Adding nothing to it and taking nothing away.’”
Continually study the lives of the saints for, “thou shalt seek daily the presence of the saints, that thou mayest find rest in their words.” Cease, for awhile. from reading about Wesley or about Wycliffe or about Chrysostom or Aquinas. These people never taught about themselves but they taught the Way of Life. Instead, read the works written by the saints whose desire was, “to know one thing–the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book!”
The saints are not only to be found in distant times. They live today. They are the pastors who have been imprisoned and daily tortured in Iran—continually threatened with death. They could have relief from their suffering by simply denying Christ. They are the Christians who have left the comfort of the United Sates to carry the Gospel to places where their primary transportation is a bicycle and clean water is a luxury for the wealthy. They are in China, where a clergy couple stood in front of a bulldozer threatening their church and were buried alive. The husband died but the wife was pulled out alive. When it comes to knowing the way of God and what is good, ought we not to pay greater heed to the words of the martyrs than to those who invent clever ideas while seated in leather chairs behind mahogany desks at at the Conference office?
The saints are not only found in faraway places. I have seen them at the end of a summer’s day of hauling logs out of the forest and then teaching a Vacation Bible School class of seven-year-olds. I have seen them come in after the graveyard shift at the plant to keep the church nursery. I have seen a man spend a large part of a sixteen-hour day in consultation with accountants and bankers trying to make payroll without having to layoff a single-mother of three, and then I stumble over him at 10:00 at night repairing a toilet in the social hall. When it comes to knowing the way of God and what is good ought we not to pay greater heed to these saints than to those who have found in the church a comfortable life…the admiration of the political powerful, plus a guaranteed appointment, guaranteed minimum salary, and conference provided retirement?
The saints can tell us that there is much which is desirable, demonstrably beneficial, and quite practical which is not good. The saints have proven through hard experience that there is much which is undesirable, without obvious benefit, and totally impractical that is very good. They have found a stumbling fumbling way down a path that leads to life—to goodness—to God. Except that God reveals it, we have no way of ascertaining it on our own.